Saturday, May 16, 2009

Obama’s 48-Hour Makeover

Obama’s 48-Hour Makeover

Posted By Jason Ditz On May 15, 2009 @ 5:15 pm In Uncategorized | 1 Comment

President Obama’s tenuous claim to the antiwar community was already unraveling long before he formally took office. Shortly after the election his national security team’s extremely hawkish makeup was drawing concern. Two days after his inauguration, he had backed off his campaign promise to have all US troops out of Iraq in 16 months. Still, his supporters could find some measure of solace in his halting of the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay and his promises of a more transparent administration.

Or at least they used to be able to. In the past 48 hours the administration has backed off of the few scraps of significant policy revisions thrown to an electorate hungry for his campaign’s mantra of change. First, he overruled the Pentagon’s decision that undisclosed photos of detainee abuse could be released. Perplexingly, he insisted that the photos did not contain anything “particularly sensational,” before cautioning that making them public would imperil the troops and inflame anti-American opinion.

It was less than 48 hours later that the president confirmed that he was going to resume the military tribunals against detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He had previously ordered such tribunals halted when pledging to close the facility. Now instead of the rule of law, the administration is offering a modest selection of new “rights” detainees will enjoy, none of them particularly earth-shattering.

Even the pledge to close the detention center has become something of a hollow victory, amid reports that the administration is floating to Congress the idea of holding many of the detainees on American soil indefinitely and without trial. This legal sleight of hand would be accomplished through the creation of National Security Courts, which would be empowered to try detainees without the legal rights enjoyed in US criminal courts. The new courts would also provide an aegis for holding the detainees without trial while still appearing to have some measure of legal oversight on their captivity.

At the end of the day the only group really satisfied with President Obama’s new policies are the hawkish wing of the Republican Party. And why shouldn’t they? After all they supported them when President Bush introduced the notion of keeping people imprisoned without charging them with a crime, and was the architect of much of the secrecy-obsessed culture President Obama was so quick to dismiss on taking office, and is now so quick to embrace. For human rights groups, antiwar factions and even much of his own party’s base, the disappointment is becoming palpable.

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Obama Considers Detaining Terror Suspects Indefinitely

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is weighing plans to detain some terror suspects on U.S. soil -- indefinitely and without trial -- as part of a plan to retool military commission trials that were conducted for prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The proposal being floated with members of Congress is another indication of President Barack Obama's struggles to establish his counter-terrorism policies, balancing security concerns against attempts to alter Bush-administration practices he has harshly criticized.

Obama Administration Manages Detainee Policy


WSJ's Justice Department reporter Evan Perez discusses the Obama administration's efforts to create a detainee policy in line with both national security concerns and the critiques Obama raised during his campaign.

On Wednesday, the president reversed a recent administration decision to release photos showing purported abuse of prisoners at U.S. military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Obama cited concern that releasing the pictures could endanger U.S. troops. Mr. Obama ordered government lawyers to pull back an earlier court filing promising to release hundreds of photos by month's end as part a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The decision to block the detainee photos contrasts with the administration's release last month of Bush-era Justice Department memorandums outlining the interrogation tactics used on prisoners by the Central Intelligence Agency. The release of the memos set off a heated political fight, with supporters of the Bush administration accusing the Obama White House of endangering the country and some of the current president's supporters calling for criminal probes of those responsible for the interrogation policies.

The administration's internal deliberations on how to deal with Guantanamo detainees are continuing, as the White House wrestles with how to fulfill the president's promise to shutter the controversial prison. But some elements of the plans are emerging as the administration consults with key members of Congress, as well as with military officials, about what to do with Guantanamo detainees.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who met this week with White House Counsel Greg Craig to discuss the administration's plans, said among the proposals being studied is seeking authority for indefinite detentions, with the imprimatur of some type of national-security court.

Sen. Graham said he wants to work with the administration to pass legislation to increase judicial oversight of military commissions, but noted the legal difficulties that would arise.

Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the White House on Wednesday.

"This is a difficult question. How do you hold someone in prison without a trial indefinitely?" Sen. Graham said.

The White House had no comment Wednesday about its detainee deliberations.

The idea of a new national security court has been discussed widely in legal circles, including by Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Neal Katyal, a former Georgetown law professor and now Obama Justice Department official.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at a hearing last month, hinted at the administration's deliberations, saying that there were "50 to 100 [detainees] probably in that ballpark who we cannot release and cannot trust, either in Article 3 [civilian] courts or military commissions."

The administration's move to block the release of military detainee photos was welcomed by Republicans in Congress and by some military family groups but condemned by the ACLU and others.

Mr. Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had all raised concerns with the White House about releasing the detainee photos. Mr. Gates and the commanders worried that the pictures would spur new anti-American violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

—Yochi J. Dreazen contributed to this article.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Just Gotta Laugh

In reversal, Obama seeks to block abuse photos

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday he would try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners, abruptly reversing his position out of concern the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House had said last month it would not oppose the release of dozens of photos from military investigations of alleged misconduct. But American commanders in the war zones have expressed deep concern about fresh damage the photos might do, especially as the U.S. tries to wind down the Iraq war and step up operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Obama, realizing how high emotions run on detainee treatment during the Bush administration and now, made it a point to personally explain his change of heart, stopping to address TV cameras late in the day as he left the White House for a flight to Arizona.

He said the photos had already served their purpose in investigations of "a small number of individuals." Those cases were all concluded by 2004, and the president said "the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken."

When photos emerged in 2004 from the infamous U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, showing grinning American soldiers posing with detainees — some of the prisoners naked, some being held on leashes — the pictures caused a huge anti-American backlash around the globe, particularly in the Muslim world.

The Pentagon conducted 200 investigations into alleged abuse connected with the photos that are now in question. The administration did not provide an immediate accounting of how they turned out.

"This is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action," Obama said of the photos. "In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

The Justice Department filed a notice of its new position on the release, including that it was considering an appeal with the Supreme Court. The government has until June 9 to do so.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs said release of the new batch of photos from the Pentagon cases would merely "provide, in some ways, a sensationalistic portion of that investigation."

Obama said later, "I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib."

Still, he said he had made it newly clear: "Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated."

The effort to keep the photos from becoming public represented a sharp reversal from Obama's repeated pledges for open government, and in particular from his promise to be forthcoming with information that courts have ruled should be publicly available.

As such, it invited criticism from the more liberal segments of the Democratic Party, which want a full accounting — and even redress — for what they see as the misdeeds of the Bush administration.

"The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of President Obama's promise of transparency and accountability," said ACLU attorney Amrit Singh, who had argued and won the case in question before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. "It is essential that these photographs be released so that the public can examine for itself the full scale and scope of prisoner abuse that was conducted in its name."

Human Rights Watch called the decision a blow to transparency and accountability.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans welcomed the change, however. A military group also said it was relieved.

"These photos represent isolated incidents where the offending servicemen and women have already been prosecuted," said Brian Wise, executive director of Military Families United.

The reactions were a reverse of what happened after Obama's decision last month to voluntarily release documents that detailed brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA against terror suspects. Those also came out in response to an ACLU lawsuit, and his decision then brought harsh and still-continuing criticism from Republicans.

This time he's kicking the decision back into court, where his administration still may be forced into releasing the photos.

Indeed, there is some evidence that the administration has little case left.

Gibbs said the president instructed administration lawyers to challenge the photos' release based on national security implications. He said the argument was not used before.

But the Bush administration already argued against the release on national security grounds — and lost.

"It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan," the three-judge appeals panel wrote in September 2008.

The Justice Department had concluded that further appeal would probably be fruitless, and last month, Gibbs said the president had concurred with that conclusion, though without commenting on whether Obama would support the release if not pressed by a court case.

Thus, the administration assured a federal judge that it would turn over the material by May 28, including one batch of 21 photos and another of 23 images. The government also told the judge it was "processing for release a substantial number of other images," for a total expected to be in the hundreds.

The lower court also has already rejected another argument the president and his spokesman made, that the photos add little of value to the public's understanding of the issue. "This contention disregards FOIA's central purpose of furthering governmental accountability," the appeals court panel concluded in the same decision.

Obama's own Jan. 21 memorandum on honoring the Freedom of Information Act also takes a different line. "The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," it said.

The president informed Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, of his decision during a White House meeting on Tuesday.

Gen. David Petraeus, the senior commander for both wars, had also weighed in against the release, as had Gen. David McKiernan, the outgoing top general in Afghanistan.

Military commanders' concerns were most intense with respect to Afghanistan. The release would coincide with the spring thaw that usually heralds the year's toughest fighting there — and as thousands of new U.S. troops head into Afghanistan's volatile south.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had once held the view that it might be best to "go through the pain once" and release a large batch of images now, since so many are at issue in multiple lawsuits. But he — and the president — changed their minds when Odierno and McKiernan expressed "very great worry that release of these photographs will cost American lives," Gates said before the House Armed Services Committee.

"That's all it took for me," Gates said.